How the Mediterranean is turning into a barren sea

For millennia, the Mediterranean has fed its coastal peoples with abundant fish, but now it threatens to become a barren sea. Overfishing is taking a heavy toll on fish stocks, with the numbers of tuna plummeting and anchovy becoming scarce in the western Mediterranean.

“Many species are becoming increasingly rare,” says Alain Bonzon, secretary general of a commission monitoring fishing in the Mediterranean.

The problem is visible not only in the Mediterranean, but also in Spain’s Atlantic and Cantabrian fishing grounds. “We are catching less and less fish,” observes fisherman Emilio Louro from the north-western Galicia region.

“Our income is shrinking, young people are leaving, the village is becoming a place of old people,” he told the daily El Pais.

Louro realises that overfishing puts the livelihood of thousands of fishermen in danger, but not everyone is that smart.

Many small fishing companies are waging a desperate battle against large, sometimes multinational ones that see the sea only as a source of money.

The number of fishermen has halved to about 50 000 since 1990 in Spain, which has the largest fishing fleet in the European Union. At the same time, improved technology has increased the size of catches, leading to an unscrupulous pillage of the sea’s resources.

Many Spanish and French fishing companies have used EU subsidies to overhaul their fleets, installing sonar systems and new engines. Fishing boats may have engines four times as powerful as the law allows them to have in the Mediterranean, according to El Pais.

They also use banned gear such as drift nets, which haul up vast quantities of unwanted fish and other marine life, and target juvenile fish despite size restrictions.

Large companies even use radar and spotter planes to track down schools of bluefin tuna, the consumption of which has been fuelled by the growth of the global sushi market.

Tuna are fattened in special ranches around the Mediterranean for the Japanese market, and taken away by Asian ships that pick up the cargo off shore without informing the authorities, according to media reports.

About 45 000 metric tonnes of bluefin tuna are captured annually in the Mediterranean and Atlantic, more than three times as much as what experts consider a sustainable amount.

“If this goes on, new generations will see bluefin tuna only in photographs,” says Jose Luis Cort, of the Oceanographic Institute in the northern city of Santander.

The consequences of overfishing could be tragic for other species as well. Last spring’s catch of anchovy from the Gulf of Biscay, for instance, amounted to 1 080 metric tonnes, compared with up to 72 000 tons in the 1960s.

Other endangered species include hake, swordfish, red mullet and cod.

The results of overfishing are becoming visible in the rapid increase of jellyfish off touristic beaches in the Mediterranean. The phenomenon has been attributed to the animals now having less predators and competitors.

Environmentalists blame lax European government enforcement, while European officials say regulations are insufficient and fishing a difficult activity to monitor.

The environmental group Greenpeace believes the Mediterranean can only be saved from overfishing, industrial waste and oil spills by turning 40% of it into marine reserves.—Sapa-dpa

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